The Lighting Designer Who Multitasks Like Few Can
Bob Dickinson might be the busiest lighting designer in the world. From the Olympics Ceremonies to the Grammys and Oscars, with a pavilion and opening ceremonies for the Shanghai Expo, just to name a few, his projects in 2010 are already legion. How does he do it? Live Design touches base with this “go-to” man for the broadcast lighting of televised live events and award shows to find out what makes him tick.
Live Design: How many projects are you usually working on at the same time?
Bob Dickinson: Looking back over the past four years, I have averaged 2.75 major projects a month. This is simplistic because some really only involve a few weeks attention, but others, like the Olympics, require ongoing grooming for well over a year. The simple answer is that there are usually between 15 and 20 projects that require attention at any given time.
LD:How did you become the “go-to” guy for televised live events and awards shows?
BD: Delivering a dependable broadcast environment, without looking like predictable television lighting, is key to making any televised event viable to the viewer. I strive to try to push the margins, when appropriate, while still maintaining the essential needs for the broadcast. This is risky at times, as being safe and boring is just that—safe and boring. Sometimes the risks do not pay off, but by and large, it has sustained my career to be adventurous. Also, I have developed an incredible team that can support me and deliver a dependable product, even under extreme circumstances. No one who lights these bombastic events can survive without a world class, experienced, and even-tempered team of lighting directors, associate lighting directors, draftspersons, programmers, crew chiefs, and technicians.
LD:This winter seemed particularly busy with the addition of the Olympics to your usual hectic awards show schedule, how did you fit so much into those few months? How much do you rely on your associate designers?
BD: Yes, it was a particularly chaotic season, and the only way I survive is by assigning key people to different shows. The success of the Olympics in Vancouver was due to the abilities and dedication of Ted Wells and Travis Hagenbuch, who put a year of their lives into making the impossible happen. Meanwhile, back in the lower 48, Bob Barnhart made the Oscars a reality, while Jon Kusner steered the Grammys and the Golden Globes to broadcast. Noah Mitz, in the interim, was completing the tragic end to the Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien while finishing the preparation of the Expo 2010 Shanghai Pavilion, and Chris Werner was getting the Grand Opening Celebration of Expo 2010 ready. The overlap is unending for the entire team.
LD:Speaking of the Olympics, are the Opening and Closing Ceremonies more challenging than something like the Oscars?
BD: The producer, David Atkins, took an approach in Vancouver that was courageous and somewhat risky. I am not aware of that kind of large-scale projection ever being attempted before. From a lighting perspective, it became more about not lighting than lighting. It was very tricky and did require a great deal of attention for over a year. The Oscars are not easy from many perspectives, especially in guarding the all-important glamour close-up, but by the very nature of the show happening in a proscenium format, it is more straightforward. Both shows garner international attention and the inevitable scrutiny!
LD:What did you do in Shanghai, and what are the challenges inherent in a project like that?
BD: The architectural project is the Shanghai Corporate Pavilion. This amazing structure, surrounded by a multilayered box of LED poles, has a 3D quality, and has been named the “Dream Cube.” The interior is an interactive experience designed by Ed Schlossberg’s ESI. The experience culminates in a 360° film that involves the audience controlling the LED technology of the building as well as the lighting. It was an unusual project for us, working on an architectural installation, but I find that the same criteria needs to be applied, but from a broader perspective because every vantage is from what we would call a “wide shot.” As a separate undertaking, we lit the Opening Ceremony of the Dream Cube, which was a broadcast produced by Don Mischer, and involved as much production as a major US TV special.
The other project was the Opening Night Celebration, which was the lighting, sound, laser, water, and fireworks production that covered over a mile of riverfront and an installation of some 1,250 large-scale 7kW and 4kW Xenon instruments as well as tens of thousands of LED fixtures. The cuing involved not only the theatrical instruments, but also the lighting of two bridges and much of the Shanghai skyline, perhaps the largest scale production I have ever been involved in.
LD:You were an early adopter of video, LEDs, etc. How does that technology enhance what the viewer sees on TV?
BD: The early use of projection and LED screens initially used in television events tended to be isolated from the overall look of the broadcast. As low-resolution LED technology evolved, it became less about a traditional screen display, but reflective to the performance, which is what we do with lighting. Especially in television, a big LED screen does not deliver a story because most of the telecast is delivered in close-up, which does not look good because of the pixel quality of the LED screens. Low-resolution LED technology that is diffused becomes a scenic and controlled broadcast background. Instead of the viewer witnessing angry pimples of light behind the close up, there is the ability to have some grace behind those shots.
LD:Has HD changed your approach or toolbox in anyway?
BD: In truth, it is not a change in the type of tools, only in the use. We must be very careful about every lumen, because if not properly placed, the unwanted will influence. Most importantly, we cannot rely on the broadcast standards to make up for imperfection, especially in close-up. Every close-up needs to be considered because the screen at home is unforgiving.
LD: What’s next for you?
BD: Some rest I hope, but beside the predictable, I am looking forward to a few projects that are yet to be released.
LD:What keeps it all exciting?
BD: Working with others on a broader scale than just lumens to deliver a visual story. In short, I love being part of this fantastic, important, and sometimes ridiculous industry because it is seen and judged.